ABTs in Haskell

November 12, 2017

I’ve been learning and using Haskell on-and-off for the past couple of years. One of my early complaints was that I couldn’t find a good library for working with variables and binding that used locally nameless terms. Recently though, I found unbound-generics, which checks all my previously unfilled boxes.

Abstract binding trees (or ABTs) are abstract syntax trees (ASTs) augmented with the ability to capture the binding structure of a program. ABTs are one of the first topics we cover in 15-312 Principles of Programming Languages because variables show up in every interesting feature of a programming language.

I recently wrote at length about the various strategies for dealing with variables and binding and their implementations. While it’s a good exercise1 to implement ABTs from scratch, in most cases I’d rather just use a library. In school we used abbot, which is an ABT library for Standard ML. For tinkering with Haskell, I recently found unbound-generics, which provides a similar API.

I gave it a test drive while learning how to implement type inference for the simply-typed lambda calculus (STLC) and was rather pleased. The source code for my STLC inference program is on GitHub if you’re looking for an example of unbound-generics in action.

To pluck a few snippets out, here’s the definition of STLC terms:

data Term
  = Tvar Tvar
  | Tlam (Bind Tvar Term)
  | Tapp Term Term
  | Tlet Term (Bind Tvar Term)
  | Tz
  | Ts Term
  | Tifz Term Term (Bind Tvar Term)
  | Tbool Bool
  | Tif Term Term Term
  deriving (Show, Generic, Typeable)

Bind is the abstract type for locally nameless terms that bind a variable. It’s cool in Haskell (compared to SML) because the compiler can automatically derive the locally nameless representation from this data type definition (with help from the unbound-generics library).

Here’s what it looks like in use:

-- (This is a snippet from the type inference code)
constraintsWithCon ctx (Tlam bnd) = do
  -- 'out' the ABT to get a fresh variable
  -- (x used to be "locally nameless", but now has a globally unique name)
  (x, e) <- unbind bnd
  -- Generate fresh type variable to put into the context
  t1 <- Cvar <$> fresh (string2name "t1_")
  let ctx' = Map.insert x t1 ctx
  t2 <- constraintsWithCon ctx' e
  return $ Carrow t1 t2

Apart from out being called unbind and into being called bind, the API is pretty similar. Also, unlike abbot, which required a standalone build step to generate SML code, unbound-generics uses the Haskell’s derive Generic to bake the code generation for capture avoiding substitution and alpha equivalence right into the compiler. All in all, unbound-generics is really pleasant to use!


  1. In fact, it’s hw1 for 15-312! If you’re curious, check out the handout.

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